Headlines: Free community college

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On Jan. 8, President Obama proposed a plan that would make the first two years of community college free to all those willing to meet the requirements of his program.  The proposal is the administration’s first plan for education reform in a while and is expected to be shut down by the Republican-led Congress.

Obama’s plan would cover tuition for the first two years of community college.  Students in the program would be required to maintain at least part-time status and a 2.5 GPA.  Funding would come mostly from the federal government, with states expected to cover about 25 percent of the funds.  White House estimates report that around nine million students will benefit from this program, saving an average $3,800 per year per student in tuition.  This figure is accurate only if all 50 states choose to participate.  Not much else is clear yet on how the initiative is structured or how much it will cost.

The new plan is modeled after initiatives in Tennessee and Illinois, which are designed to make higher education more universal.  In Tennessee, tuition is covered for the first two years of community college.  Chicago’s plan is available for those students within the Chicago Public School system who have maintained a GPA of 3.0 or higher and have applied for other forms of financial aid.  President Obama mentioned both programs when unveiling his initiative and has praised both.

This plan could potentially allow more low-income students to receive higher education.  The program would also allow members of the workforce to return to college for necessary training or new skills in order to obtain higher paying jobs.  With the amount estimated that students would be saving, they will have more money to pay for housing, transportation and childcare.  Democrats in favor of this proposal say a large goal is to help the existing workforce better their careers and help decrease unemployment.

“I’m really for it.  We have thousands and thousands of good-paying jobs going unfilled and at the same time we have lots of unemployed workers. And community colleges are often the bridge that provide programs that can provide these folks, these young people, with the skills to get a good job,” said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY).

However, there has been controversy about whether the program will help the lower-income students who would most benefit from the plan or if more middle-class students would be the main group of applicants. This argument stems from the fact that the Pell Grant is already in place to support low-income students striving towards higher education.  38 percent of students currently enrolled in community colleges across the country already have their tuition paid for by the need-based grant. This is estimated to cover the tuition needs of most in-need students, with most of their leftover monetary needs stemming from transportation, books and childcare costs.  Obama’s new program would do little to solve this problem as it stands now.

There are also concerns that the new program would result in higher taxation and increased expenses for the federal government that cannot be taken on at this time.  Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said Obama’s program is not what the Republican party was hoping for because of the potential increase in taxes.

“He knows we’re not likely to pass these kinds of measures,” McConnell said.

Obama’s new plan has been applauded for taking action to bridge the education gap between low-income students and those who can readily afford higher education.  However, the lack of details of how the plan will be implemented and controversy over how effective it will really be has called for changes to be made to the proposal.

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